Guest post by Jennifer Phillips
I gripped the phone in my hand, pausing a few moments more before I dialed her number, second-guessing my decision to call in the first place. I wanted to share with this friend my heart—my current battle of struggling to walk in what is true. She is a wise soul who once walked in my shoes, a friend who has proven her loyalty again and again—and yet, the risk seemed great: Exposure. Rejection. There is no precedence in our friendship that told me she’d respond this way; in fact, history shows quite the opposite. And yet, the fear remained.
We all search for safe places for our pain to land. I wonder…are you a safe place for others’ pain? Are you a safe place for your children’s pain?
Honestly, I haven’t always been a haven for the hurting. In the past, I thought I was. I mean, people have regularly come to me for advice through the years. Many friends have cried many tears on my couch. I’ve listened attentively as my children have poured out the brokenness of their spirits. I’ve comforted, consoled, encouraged, and exhorted with the best of them.
The missing ingredient? Empathy. As a person who tends towards, ahem, control issues, my past plan for helping people (big and small) out of their despair was very neat and tidy: Here’s the problem, here’s your solution – now, simply apply the remedy and voila! All better. The very thing I scold my husband for – trying to fix me instead of understand me – is what I sometimes do, in varying degrees, with the people I love and am called to care for.
But pain is messy. It follows its own erratic timetable. It can seem unforgivingly eternal.
I didn’t really get that until God turned my world upside down in the form of a 15-month-old Chinese orphan, and an elusive little blue document called a passport.
Several years ago, God called our family to adopt a little girl from China, and with fear and trembling, we obeyed. My husband, three biological children, and I traveled to Guangzhou at Christmastime in 2013. We walked into a sterile government building as a family of five and walked out a family of six, our tiny, malnourished daughter, Lucy, in our arms. She didn’t want anything to do with us. Who could blame her? She had spent the first 15 months of her life virtually alone on a wooden slat in an isolated crib, with hardly any stimulation, touch, or interaction. We had invaded her sensory-deprived world, and we were terrifying.
But I had a neat little plan, you see. Immigration laws required Lucy to land on U.S. soil to obtain her automatic U.S. citizenship, so the plan was this: Brian and the other three kids would return to our home in Australia, and Lucy and I would fly to the U.S. We would secure her citizenship, get her U.S. passport, and quickly be on our way home where we could cocoon and bond and get Lucy started on all her much-needed therapies.
It went just like that, except the opposite. Lucy’s passport application and American citizenship were denied. Instead of spending two weeks in the States apart from the rest of our family, in the end Lucy and I were stuck in an immigration nightmare for two months.
Pain and I became well acquainted. I didn’t pray sweet prayers to God; I screamed at God. I was not a pillar of strength for my children; I wept with them via Face Time. Each day of bad news, each hour of continuing separation pushed me further into panic and despair.
Can I tell you something? There was no easy answer for my pain. There were no words that could quickly pull me out. The result? Empathy. As a hurting person I learned that people—our children included—are not problems to be hurriedly fixed. Pain is messy. Only Jesus, in His own timing, is the Healer.
My perspective of the wounded, and how to care for them well, was altered.
From my book, Bringing Lucy Home:
Walking through my own trial gave me a degree of empathy I did not have before for people who are stuck in despair… Instead of easily sweeping aside someone’s doubts about God and His goodness with a pat theological answer, I can say, “Yeah, I doubt too.” Before this particular tightrope walk of faith, I would respond too anxiously when Christians would confess they had doubts. I reminded them of things they already knew and perhaps glossed over their struggles to push them back on the path of Christian disciplines. I should have explored the depths of those doubts with them, trusting the One who will not let them go. I know better now.
I once heard that a death row inmate said, “Empathy doesn’t say, ‘That could be me.’ Empathy says, ‘That is me.’” Yes. This particular pain was opening my eyes to how much I was connected to others because, like them, I am a broken person in a broken world…
I would like to think this pain has changed me, and that I will comfort others differently than I did before. I will not rush friends to the other side of challenging circumstances with quickly spouted verses. I won’t judge someone’s spirituality based on how quickly they can bounce back. Instead, I’ll sit with others in their pain, in their desperation, and say, “You are me and your pain is my pain. Let’s walk through all its intricacies and feel every part of it, and eventually we’ll come out on the other side, but there is no rush. Take as long as you need.”
I can’t say I’ve always been a safe place for others’ pain, but I pray that now, by God’s grace, I am.
Be a safe place for others to fall today. Be a safe place for your children to fail. The process may not be as neat as you’d like it to be, but that’s okay, isn’t it?
And trust Jesus as the sole Healer, in their lives and yours.
Jennifer Phillips graduated from Samford University. She then worked with Sav-A-Life, a national network of crisis pregnancy centers, eventually becoming its Executive Director. She and her family currently live in Brisbane, Australia, where her husband Brian serves with Uni-Impact, a franchise of Campus Outreach. Jennifer’s book, Bringing Lucy Home, is available online at LifeWay, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, as well as by request at your local bookstore. You can follow Jennifer at littlelucymei.blogspot.com.
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